Long Beach cop’s nonprofit aims to become national leader in community policing

WYSM

Jason Lehman isn’t a mathematician, but he believes he has come up with the magical formula for improved relations between the community and police.

E + R = O

The Long Beach cop didn’t exactly invent the equation. Success coaches have touted a variation on it for years.

But Lehman believes he is the first in the country to apply the concept to relations between cops and the public, which these days are at a low point because of several recent highly publicized officer-involved shootings around the country.

The letters stand for Events, Reactions and Outcome.

“Events occur in our lives, and how we choose to react is what determines the outcome,” Lehman says. “A positive reaction should yield a positive outcome. And this equation is what can equate to peace between cops and the public.”

That concept is at the heart of a message Lehman created in 2012. This message has proved to be so powerful, it lead Lehman to create a nationally recognized nonprofit organization launched in 2014 called Why’d You Stop Me? (wysm.org).

Through customized training sessions that include numerous scripted police/community relations-based scenarios and discussion, the goal of WYSM is to decrease acts of violence between police and the public.

Through WYSM training, cops get a feel for what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone being questioned by an officer, and members of the public get a sense of what’s in the mind of a cop when he or she initiates a stop. WYSM trains both sides with the aim of creating effective, two-way communication.

As Lehman sees it, a lack of education on the part of both sides often is a trigger for patrol stops that turn ugly — and sometimes deadly.

He relates a story about a teenager who went through WYSM training at Jordan High School in Long Beach, a city with nearly 60 criminal street gangs.

The kid showed up to the seminar wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “F— the Police.” He had hidden the slogan under a backpack but proudly displayed it once inside the seminar.

Lehman asked the kid why he was wearing such a shirt.

“There’s nothing good about the police,” the teen responded.

By the end of the four-hour session, the 15-year-old had dramatically changed his perception of law enforcement, according to Lehman.

“You’re right,” the teen told Lehman. “I didn’t realize what police were all about.”

The teen left after telling Lehman, “Now I know the cops are here to help and not hurt.”

Some of the topics covered in WYSM training include effective two-way communication techniques, de-escalation training, defining important concepts such as power and fear, and racial profiling vs. criminal profiling.

“We explain to a human being how to deal with an authority figure, and we explain to a human being how to be an authority figure without abusing his or her power,” Lehman says.

GROWING PROGRAM

At 6 feet 4 and 290 pounds, Lehman, 34, cuts quite the figure.

An ex-Division 1 college football standout, Lehman is voluble and animated, and since he was 20 — five years before he became a cop — he has been involved in public speaking.

But Why’d You Stop Me? seminars don’t use intimidating “Scared Straight”-type methods.

Instead, they use “real-life” scenarios to educate both cops and the public.

It’s a formula that appears to be working.

WYSM has endorsements across the country, but one of Lehman’s proudest endorsements comes from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who deemed Lehman’s program “Best Practice for reducing acts of violence between police and the public.”

Last year, WYSM conducted seminars in 20 cities in six states and to date has educated more than 5,000 community members ages 13 and older and law enforcement officials alike, Lehman says. In Long Beach alone, more than 200 officers (every officer hired after Jan. 1, 2013) have gone through WYSM seminars. Orange County law enforcement officers from both Santa Ana PD’s Directed Patrol Division as well as members of the Anaheim Police Department have received WYSM training.

Lehman said two of his program’s biggest supporter’s are LBPD Chief Robert Luna and Long Beach Police Officer’s Association President Lt. Steve James.

Lehman took a circuitous route to law enforcement.

At age 13, the New York City native got in minor trouble with the law.

“I was hanging out with the wrong crew,” says Lehman. “I didn’t like cops.”

The charges were dropped, and soon Lehman’s family relocated to Southern California.

Lehman attended a private high school in Glendale and then Cerritos College in Norwalk before heading to the University of South Florida in Tampa on a football scholarship.

After earning undergraduate degrees in interpersonal communication and criminology, Lehman returned to California and settled in Long Beach.

After briefly coaching football at Woodrow Wilson High School, Lehman went to EMT school at UCLA, worked for a while at the L.A. County Fire Department, and then decided to become a cop.

He was hired by the Long Beach PD in 2006 and currently works full time on the day watch patrol shift in the West Division.

 

CHANGES IN ATTITUDE

The idea for WYSM started in 2011 after Lehman took it upon himself to speak to a class at Long Beach Polytechnic High School following threats of violence against cops in the city by gang members.

Troubled, Lehman felt it was important to speak to youngsters — who may or may not have had a connection to the gangsters.

“I had an us-vs.-them mentality prior to speaking to the class,” Lehman recalls. “I soon realized the students shared some issues with me. They shared an ongoing struggle with power and an ongoing struggle with fear.”

Lehman also realized that education was the key to changing the mentality of the students — as well as the mentality of his colleagues in law enforcement.

After his talk, a high school official asked Lehman what the name of his program was.

“I don’t have a program,” Lehman responded.

The exchange inspired him to get to work on forming Why’d You Stop Me?, which officially became a nonprofit in 2014. Lehman is the organization’s founder and executive director. He said he has spent more than $100,000 of his own money getting his educational programs off the ground.

Attendees of Lehman’s seminars are given wrist bands (he calls them “reminder bands”) to wear to show they’ve been educated in the WYSM program, which includes guest speakers outside of law enforcement. Lehman says that inviting credible community members to come and speak during his program really helps to spread his message.

One regular speaker is Jasmine Simpson, now 19.

When she was 16 and a 10th-grader at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Simpson wrote a poem called “I Used to Hate You” that has gained recognition in law enforcement circles.

In the poem, Simpson, who had family members who were arrested and taken away from her when she was young, and who was raised by relatives who weren’t always the best role models, wrote about her transformation from cop hater to cop supporter.

Now Simpson, who also was sexually abused as a child, is a frequent speaker at WYSM seminars.

“I’, glad to say that our team has truly helped to save Jasmine’s life,” Lehman says.

Rodney Coulter is another community leader on Lehman’s team.

Growing up in Long Beach as a member of the Insane Crip Gang and having abused drugs and alcohol for years, Coulter now is a college graduate who has been free from gangs, drugs, and alcohol and now sees things very differently.

Lehman explains that Coulter, who is black, has a strong ability to speak about race issues during police/community conflict.

“He is able to get a message across to our program participants that racial profiling occurs very infrequently,” Lehman says. “He has a unique ability to grab the the audience’s trust almost immediately.”

The first community speaker to join Lehman’s team is Zeena Valenzuela.

Valenzuela is a recovered methamphetamine addict who was kidnapped for a two-day period and gang-raped by 12 individuals. She speaks to the community about the importance of reporting crimes and having trust in the system. She also teaches law enforcement officials that “compassion is key” to gaining cooperation from the community.

This summer, WYSM plans to begin offering a “Train the Trainer” course to officers from agencies across the country, including the Dallas PD, Austin PD, Las Vegas Metropolitan PD, Bakersfield PD, San Jose PD and Orange County agencies including the Anaheim PD and the Santa Ana PD.

This 40-hour training program aspires to be POST-approved, Lehman says, and is being developed by Cal State Long Beach’s division of professional programming and the Training Alliance for Public Safety, a consulting company.

“The program will train members of participating agencies to not only speak to the community with a more understandable message that better humanizes the profession,” Lehman says, “but also will allow the officers trained to train other officers within their agency.”

Lehman stresses that WYSM is a community program and not just for law enforcement.

“We need to train both sides of the contact,” he says. “If we don’t educate our community and our police on better ways to effectively communicate with one another, then how are we supposed to promote safety during police/community contacts?”

Adds Lehman: “Our organization is here to educate. It’s somewhat sad to think about, but what other program out there is doing this?”

For more information, please email info@wysm.org or visit the WYSM website atwysm.org or on Facebook. 

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